Why did Holland rank first in the world in the 2015 PISA study for the emotional well-being of their children in schools? And, why does Holland have more Leader in Me schools than any other country in Europe?
The answer to the second question is simple. The Leader in Me process of gradually embedding a whole school approach of life skills such as; resilience, independence, and leadership with strong emphasis on character education is totally aligned to the Dutch school system. Schools in Holland see the Leader in Me as supporting them to deliver what is most important – happy, resilient and self-directed learners with good character who can work well with others.
What about the first question? Why does Holland have the happiest children in the world? After visiting some Dutch Leader in Me schools last year and doing research into their way of educating children, I believe three significant factors contribute to their success;
Strong Focus on Character
Although Dutch children start school at four, they only start structured learning at age six because they believe that forcing children to read and write too early leads to lower intrinsic motivation to learn in later years. Throughout primary school, children’s reports have no grades. Instead, their reports focus on social skills and character. Assessment categories include behaviours such as; ‘the ideal child is independent, calm, modest, self-confident and responsible’. Additional categories include the relationship with the teacher and the child’s relationship with other children. Children are expected to be curious, polite and open to being corrected if wrong. They are assessed on their ability to work well with others and expected to be considerate towards each other, resilient and good at listening. There is also a category on attitude to work with attributes such as their level of perseverance, concentration, ability to work independently and to listen during lessons.
Every parent receives this kind of report with a detailed character assessment of their child. The report structure makes it foundational for teachers to really get to know their pupils to be able to teach them effectively. The school culture is clear, it’s not about high academic results but nurturing the child to develop their good character and social skills. UNICEF research showed that social skills are instrumental to happiness, much more important than IQ. By investing in embedding the right behaviours throughout primary school the Dutch have very few problems with rebellious teenagers, disengaged learners and mental health issues in secondary schools compared with the UK.
What happened in the UK? We used to have a strong emphasis on character education, but when did the tide tip with increased external pressures that forced our schools to focus too narrowly on academics at the expense of the whole child and their character? Today our schools focus almost completely on academics and character gets ignored. This is extremely dangerous because the consequences are severe, leading to pupils having a weak moral compass and little resilience.
Early and Continuous Independence Training
As I walked through one of the school hallways I saw three children about five years of age, all standing on top of a bench building a tower. There was no teacher in sight. The children are focused, respectful and responsible as they work well together – they are independent, hence the high trust between teacher and pupil. The Dutch start independence training from a child’s first day at school and it continues throughout their education. They believe the more you trust children with responsibility the more they learn and grow. Teachers encourage, accept and honour a child’s initiative. The Dutch culture is to be child-led and not parent pushed. They encourage parents to let go of their anxieties, allow children to make mistakes and not be too over-protective of their children. Teachers provide pupils with choice throughout the curriculum.
After observing a classroom lesson with 12-year olds all working autonomously, I asked the teacher afterwards why he thought it was so important to provide his pupils with choice. He looked at me strangely as if I was asking the most ridiculous question in the world. He simply replied, “if I don’t provide them with choice they won’t be motivated to learn.” This is pure genius and makes complete sense. However, honouring this choice and independence within our children is vital. I was delivering a leadership course to headteachers in Leeds this week and one of the headteachers said, the time that children are most independent in UK schools is in reception (Year R) and then we gradually make them more dependent each year. We have created a culture where rules and strict regulations banish all initiative and independence.
The Dutch believe that unless you give children a sense of responsibility they will become helpless later on. Educators in Holland place great value on the Self-Determination Theory which explains the three big innate needs for nourishment, optimal learning and personal growth. The first being autonomy – the child’s need to have choice in their learning, a sense of responsibility and a voice in decisions that affect their life. According to research the happiest and most successful children are the ones whose teachers and parents respect their autonomy and remain responsive and involved when support is needed. Dutch children have much less mental health issues because of this high degree of independence training they receive at school and the inner resilience it fosters. The Dutch believe that children need to be allowed to make their own choices that can influence their own happiness. The essence of Stephen Covey’s habit 1; Be Proactive.
High Family Support Structures
Some of the biggest challenges our UK schools face are the lack of parental support, low parental life aspirations for their children and then on the flip side, aspirational parents who get in the way of their children’s happiness. Dutch schools believe it is their responsibility to help educate parents to raise happy and successful children. It starts with teachers’ early emphasis on character and independence. There is a strong culture of providing parent courses at school in how to best support your child. Almost every parent attends a course called puberty and receives a detailed booklet when their children enter senior school. The course empowers parents with strategies to parent successfully through these trivial years and it clearly has a positive impact because Holland has one of the lowest levels of teenage rebellion.
Parents are encouraged not to use punishment-based discipline, instead it’s all about teaching socially appropriate behavior. Schools caution parents against the dangers of being overly ambitious and the high price tag for driving for perfection. Parents have bought into the fact that their child’s emotional well-being is more important than any external validation of academic success. Parent education programmes delivered within Dutch schools have shown to increase the levels of appropriate parental support. The Dutch culture is – we work hard to create a strong family culture that is supportive and demanding. This is one of the powerful aspects of the Leader in Me process with many parents attending the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families course which gives them a new mindset and the tools for effective parenting.
Written by Clinton Lamprecht – Chairman United Education Group
Leader in Me Conference
At the April, Leader in Me conference in Edinburgh and Surrey, Marcel Koning from Holland will provide a thought provoking and empowering presentation on well-being, the Dutch way. He will engage us with the process for creating a whole-child and whole-school approach to well-being. There will be much for us to learn and apply. Places are limited so book early to avoid disappointment.